After a few days in Belgrade, it was time to venture further off the beaten track and visit the newest country on the planet (though Scotland might soon nab that record). Kosovo declared independence in 2008 though it’s only recognised by just over half the UN and neighbouring Serbia still deems it to be its own territory. As such, you can’t travel northbound from Kosovo up to Serbia. You can only cross from Serbia into Kosovo.
Despite these diplomatic tensions, getting a bus ticket to Pristina (Kosovo’s capital) in Belgrade was very easy. Next to the train station is a large bus station – БАС – where there were a whole row of empty ticket desks. The woman at the desk spoke pretty good English so was able to tell me the different times of the buses. Unless you want to get a bus in the wee hours, the first bus is at 12pm and there are about 5 more daily throughout the afternoon and evening. I went for the 12pm one as I was meeting a friend in Pristina that evening. The fare was just over 2000 dinar (about £14) and, as well as my ticket, I was also given a small coin to get me through the bus station barriers. I got my ticket the day before but the bus wasn’t full so you could probably just catch it on the day if you knew the timetable in advance. The bus doesn’t terminate at Pristina – it continues on to other parts of Kosovo.
The journey took just over 6 hours and wasn’t too bad, though the roads in the south of Serbia were pretty rickety. It was another incredibly green and scenic journey. The border crossing was fine too. I didn’t get stamped out of Serbia (because they don’t deem you to be leaving) but got a nice new Kosovo stamp. Pristina is only about an hour from the border crossing. Kosovo’s a really small country. We did run into a bit of trouble when we were pulled over by the police shortly after crossing the border, though we weren’t stopped for long so I’m not sure what the problem was.
The Pristina bus station is a little out of the city, though it’s walkable. It took me about 30 minutes or so. There are plenty of taxis about too. The good thing about Kosovo is despite not being in the EU, it has the Euro. I didn’t see too many exchange offices though (and I’m not sure if they’d exchange £ anyway) so it’s best to have euros in advance or use the cash machines, of which there are many dotted around the city.
Pristina is somewhat ironically named, since there’s not much about it that’s pristine. Despite that, like Belgrade it has a charm about it. It’s a young city, it’s a battle-scarred city and it fuses together its own quirks with a somewhat European feel. There’s a huge pedestrianised section in the centre of the city, with cafes and bars (and big screens for the Euros) and you really could be anywhere else in Europe. It feels like a city that’s evolving.
Despite this, there are parts of the city which feel completely Middle Eastern. The section of the city where my hostel was was surrounded by mosques and a lively fruit and food market at its heart. It’s a kind of hodge-podge city of young and old, European and Asian. The hostel itself wasn’t the best – Hostel Istanbul. It’s slightly cheaper than the competition but also had an 11pm curfew that I wasn’t told about (resulting in me being locked out on my first night) and non-existent staff. My local friend told me The White Tree is supposed to be a lot better and around the same price.
The city of Pristina isn’t heavy on attractions, but the joy is just in walking round and soaking in the atmosphere and some of the balmy architecture. There’s an homage to Bill Clinton, a library that looks like it’s made out of Playmobil and traffic that was even crazier than Belgrade. The National Library is definitely worth a look, just because I couldn’t get my head round whether the design was so bad it was good or if it was just plain bad.
There are plenty of bars serving €1 – €2 beers. The nice ones are gathered round the main square and almost all of them have outdoor seating. Peja beer was actually pretty tasty and refreshing. It’s also very easy to eat well for next to nothing in Pristina. The first night I met up with friends and visited the Soma Book Station which is slightly more expensive than other places, though I still got a huge burger, chips and two beers for less than €10. A real must-eat place is Princesa Gresa restaurant. It’s apparently a favourite for internationals and US marines, two of which I saw having dinner. It’s not hard to see why. The food is delicious, the portion sizes huge and I think I spent about €7 for a huge chicken dish, bread and a 0.5l Peja. I think because it’s in euros, it’s really obvious just how ridiculously cheap it is.
There was just an overall good atmosphere in the city, partly because of the Euros and the dozens of Albanian flags flying everywhere but also because it’s a fresh, young city breaking away from its past. I got a lot of raised eyebrows from family and friends when I mentioned coming to Kosovo. It doesn’t necessarily evoke images of a fun, tourist destination. But the city of Pristina, whilst a little rough round the edges, was a brilliant insight into a part of Europe not many travellers get to see.